The North Taranaki town of Waitara has known since the colonial wars of last century its share of hard times. But nothing in recent memory has focused as much attention on the little town as the early morning police killing of 23 year old Steven Wallace on 30th April. As has been already said in the popular press and media, the incident has raised more questions than people are prepared to answer. Here we give our answers to what we belief are the right questions.

Nationally, the public debate has centred around the possibility that the fatal shooting of Wallace who was armed only with a baseball bat was racially motivated. The media debated the shoot to kill policy of the police and asked why in this case, when Wallace was obviously out of control smashing windows, pepper spray or some other less lethal method of subduing him was not used. In the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, many drew the conclusion that the killing was racial. The final police report had yet to be released at the time of writing. But whatever its conclusions there is no doubt that it will fall short of explaining the context in which the killing occurred. It will focus on immediate issues and try to justify the action of the police officer.

So what are the grounds for talking of a racial killing? From day one when the story broke, the immediate response from the local iwi (tribe) was that the incident was the culmination of hostility directed at local Maori by the police over long period. Even the Prime Minister Helen Clark commented that there appeared to be some evidence of racism involved in the background. The acting Police Commissioner admitted on National Television that surveys had found that some police had racist attitudes towards Maori. Rajan Prasad, Race Relations Conciliator, was dispatched to Waitara to come up with a "plan of action" to deal with racism at Waitara. He was overwhelmed by accounts of police racism told to him by local Maori.

Police denial fuels racist backlash

The police attitude to the incident was expressed by Police Association (police officers union) president Gregg O’Connor. He claimed that the shooting was isolated and unrelated to any wider political or social context. The officer who had shot Wallace was part Maori. He had no option but to shoot five bullets into Wallace’s chest as Wallace had cornered him with the baseball bat. Shooting at the chest to stop an offender was standard police practice.

He rejected the charge of racism. If the Police target local Maori it is because they continue to offend he said. The media started to line up behind this story and oppose the publication of the name of the officer concerned. The implication was that his life would be threatened by parties unknown, but it didn’t take much imagination to picture the ‘lawless’ elements of Waitara seeking revenge.

The more the issue of police racism became highlighted the more vocal became the right-wing racist reaction in support of the cops in editorials and talkback radio. The deeper historical grievances underlying the incident that go back to the land seizures of the last century were not to be raised like the Maori Sovereignty flags that appeared over the main street the morning Wallace died. Even Helen Clark blamed the victim when she stated that the local tribe, Ngati Te Atiawa, was the author of its own misfortune in failing to administer adequately the paltry sum of $34 million as its share of the $170m offered to Taranaki tribes in the Treaty settlement process.

The backtracking of Helen Clark on this issue is a response to the rapid fall from grace of the Labour Party. Clark’s talk of racism touched the redneck nerve of middle NZ. Shifting of the blame for the depressed economy of Waitara onto the iwi which is expected to make up for 150 years of colonisation with a pathetic $34m shows that she expects the Treaty Settlements to close the ‘gap’ between Maori and Pakeha.

Belittling all attempts by local Maori to put a historical focus on the causes of the social problems in the region has become the order of the day for many in the white establishment. They are threatened by any challenge to their monoculturalist identity founded on expropriated Maori land when many of their settler antecedents were members of militia which fought against the armed resistance movement of Titokowaru (see James Belich I Shall Not Die) or the passive resistance of Te Whiti at Parihaka (see Dick Scott Ask That Mountain).

The racist reality

The fact that three Crown judgments since 1860 have determined that land stolen by the Crown in the Waitara area must be returned to the Te Atiawa have never been implemented shows that successive governments have never been serious about returning the land and now attempt to resolve the long-standing grievances with petty cash. Local Maori have every justification for seeing the whole of the Pakeha society stacked up against them. Perhaps this sense of social and cultural trashing had something to do with Steven Wallace’s rage in smashing the windows of the Waitara police station?

According to accounts told to the Race Relations Conciliator, the Police racism directed at Maori is a daily reality. Many of those who spoke to the Conciliator told of cases of repeated harassment of individuals as well as their families. Discrimination was not isolated to younger Maori as one might expect, but across all age groups. Many felt powerless against this institutionalised racism with a history of over 150 years. There was not use appealing to those same institutions that dealt out the racism. It is this same racism that generates the level of denial that says that a part Maori cop cannot be a racist.

Part of the brief for being a cop in the Taranaki district is to have some familiarity with the Crown version of local history. To be told that places like Parihaka are synonymous with rebellion and lawlessness. Or that Waitara and the surrounding lands were among the first to be confiscated by the Crown because Te Atiawa dared to assert authority over their own lands against the imposed laws of the Crown. An authority which the Police ever since and today are expected to uphold. That any trouble caused by local Maori is to be seen as a spillover from past lawlessness. And so the basis of the present police attitude is established and institutionalised.

The general view about racism in the wider community in the Taranaki district, has been one that has been avoided by the mainstream media. Its sits uncomfortably with many who prefer to see the issue as between the Police and Maori. The Police are there to keep the Maori in check and to stop them from rising up and exposing thinly veiled prejudices in the general population. It keeps the lid on the rampant racism such as that found in the local High School in Waitara by a Human Rights Commission report in the early 1990’s.

This ingrained racism is a trait shared by conservative rural districts throughout much of the country. Attempts to gloss over this fact by pointing to rugby as an example or racial harmony are about as relevant as the pretentious patriotism surrounding the America’s Cup and a bunch of mercenaries whose pursuit of profit plunged much of the country into a fit of fake unity where the best got richer and the rest were awarded the booby prize of national gullibility.

If such pseudo celebrations do not paper over the racist cracks what about Wallace’s mixed race? If he chose to identify as a Maori with 150 years of racial oppression wasn’t that a personal lifestyle option? Like the cop who shot him, Wallace was also part Maori part Pakeha. This was used to argue that killer and victim were racially united as harmony personified. This is the biological determinism of ‘blood’. As many ethnically mixed people will tell you, it is that side that you most stongly identify with that will determine your identity and how the community judges you.

Hometown Waitara

As an architecture student at Victoria University in Wellington, Steven Wallace was seen as a rare example in his community. His prowess in Taha Maori and sport together with his intellectual and academic ability, meant that he should have had a promising future. Here was young Maori who against the odds seemed to have survived a town which had suffered the loss of its major employers. First the closure of the Subaru assembly plant and then three years ago the local freezing works were devastating blows to the local Maori community.

The result has led Waitara to be dubbed the town with the lowest per capita income in Taranaki. Attempts by the local iwi as part of their land claims to get access to oil and natural gas, have been stifled by successive governments who have sold off the rights to these reserves to multinationals without consulting the local iwi. Moreover the Governments on behalf of multinational oil companies have ridden rough shod over local iwi invoking the Public Works Act to gain access to exploration sites on tribal land without compensation. It is against this background that the tragedy of Steven Wallace unfolds. For despite his talents and abilities Wallace could not escape this social environment.

Wallace’s family had no money to pay for his education. He had to get a student loan for his Architecture course. Perhaps because he feared not being able to pay back his student loan Wallace abandoned his course and returned to his home town. This would not have been unusual. Research by universities show that many young people from low socio-economic status (working class, Maori or Pacific Island backgrounds) either do not go to university or drop out because of fear of getting heavily into debt. In previous years Wallace had had encounters with the Police like many of his contemporaries. These experiences together with the social tensions in Waitara compounded into a situation that was to end in tragedy.

Why shoot to kill?

The mechanics of the actual shooting are still currently under three separate investigations: an internal police review, a Police Complaints Authority review, and a separate review of the Police use of firearms set up by the Government. The Police Complaints Authority is widely recognised as not being independent. It has been criticised in the past for setting terms of investigation and restricting criminal liability to favour the police. Recently the PCA ruling that no illegal search of Christchurch political activist David Small’s home by the Security Intelligence Service had occurred was overruled by the Courts. We expect the PCA report of the Waitara shooting to justify the shooting as necessary in the circumstances, and to whitewash the history of racism that surrounds the case.

Nor has the behaviour of the Police since the shooting done anything to lessen the racial tensions. The use of an external liaison officer as mediator between Police and local iwi has failed to impress as anything more than a token gesture and final decisions will be left to the local Police Commander. The decision by Police in fire hosing Wallace’s blood down the drain and into the river which is a source of food for the local people was made be a senior officer over the protests of local Maori who saw it as a breach of Taha Wairuatapu (sacredness). A clear sign that the Police authorities have no serious interest in coming to grips with the real causes of local grievances.

The shoot to incapacitate policy which amounts to shoot to kill, is the subject of a review ordered by the Prime Minister’s Office, designed to determine if there is an alternative to the use of deadly force currently in practice. Police spokesman Gregg O’Connor maintains that it is unrealistic to expect a more effective way of dealing with a situation such as Waitara if it is deemed that the officer on the spot is in mortal danger.

There has been a marked increase in the use of firearms in situations where the threat to police or other lives do not justify them. When the Police are under pressure, underfunded and understaffed, resorting to quick and fatal solutions can be cost-effective. This is the policing policy of zero-tolerant neo-liberal regimes who take the line that crime is individually motivated and that even minor crimes against property, such as that of Steven Wallace, can be escalated by confrontational policing methods that justifies police killing the offenders.

NZ Police now routinely carry loaded firearms in their cars. One went off accidentally while a police car was being serviced in Christchurch several years ago. Police allegedly took firearms with them when they visited a Waitara Marae to talk to elders recently. This is hardly surprising considering that the present Police firearms policy is modeled on US practice whose catalogue of misadventure and paranoia goes beyond anything seen in NZ to date.

We do not expect the Review of the use of firearms to seriously challenge the zero-tolerance, law-and-order policing. There may be some other options such as plastic bullets or stun guns, but the focus will remain that of stopping the criminal, rather than the human rights of victims of capitalist oppression. The Labour-Alliance Government is moving quickly down the Blairite path to put the main responsibility for their actions onto individuals rather than society. Why is this?

Well, the Government cannot tax the rich to close the ‘gap’ between Maori and Pakeha in society without losing business confidence, so it must shift the burden of responsibility from a history of colonial oppression which costs big bucks to put right, to one of individual self-reliance. The blanket hostility to Alliance MP Matt Robson’s proposals to introduce conjugal rights in gaols, a policy that is widely adopted overseas and even in Australia, shows how reactionary (the PM's word is "pragmatic") the Governments’ thinking on such social issues is.

The Role of the Media

The role of the media in building and maintaining a racist consensus on the Waitara shooting is clear. The bourgeois media generally have an interest in backing capitalism because they are capitalist firms themselves. They defend the rights of private property and individual rights are subordinated to these. The Waitara case illustrates this well. The decision by most of the media except for the National Business Review , to buckle under to the Police Association’s emotive appeals not to publish the name of the officer who shot Steven Wallace, shows that it puts its profits before moral or democratic principles.

The New Zealand Herald refused to publish the name of the officer on the grounds that there was police inquiry pending and that to do so would endanger the him and his family. This was despite a Court ruling that his name could be published and the fact that his name was already widely known. This line is at least consistent with the NZH pro-police editorial position. It is also consistent with making profits. The threat of a massive backlash by right-wing readers would have put a severe dent in the NZH’s bottom line. Even though daily newspapers in NZ command a regional monopoly (and are owned by the multinational monopolies of Murchoch or O’Reilly) and it was hardly likely that the readership would have much choice in switching to alternative print media sources. But the NZH chose to back the establishment and the racial consensus on the Waitara shooting.

In an earlier case the NZH buckled under to a Court ruling that prevented it from naming an American billionaire who had been ‘let off’ on possession of marijuana charges and had his name suppressed causing widespread outrage of ‘one law for us and one for the rich’. The NZH was not prepared to challenge the Court in the interests of ‘freedom of the press’ or ‘justice for all’ since that same Court defends its own private property rights. Clearly the need to maintain the legal framework of property rights and to boost profits is paramount when compared to the shallow and insincere dilly dallying over the ‘public’s right to know’ and ‘freedom of the press’.

The decision of the National Business Review to publish the police officer’s name reflects both the editorial line of this right-wing business paper devoted to individual accountability, especially on the part of state employees, and also its scooping other media to boost its subscribers. Its sales of the issue in question rose and subscription cancellations are not likely to be very many. Interestingly, the more crusading Independent edited by Warren Berryman and Jenny McManus who pride themselves on their "independence" did not publish.

Of the mainstream media, only the social democratic leaning Listener (May 20) chose to talk about the social and racial issues surrounding the Waitara killing as having a real bearing on the tragedy. But its main editorial thrust was against the Police Association for taking the line it did in to close down any public questioning of the shooting. The Listener also indirectly identified the officer who shot Wallace by speculating about the theory that Wallace had a personal problem with the police officer who was also Waitara’s fire chief.

The Legacy of Waitara

The legacy of the Waitara shooting will continue to haunt the forces of capitalism for some time to come. This small Taranaki town encapsulates all of the elements necessary to understand what forces are at play governing the lives of ordinary workers. How historical events impact on actions in the future like falling dominoes. Where a series of incidents drawn out over many years cannot be judged in isolation like an experiment in a laboratory. The questions thrown up over the shooting of Steven Wallace are not rhetorical, consigned to some blank oblivion where much of the bourgeois commentary ends up. They are about ongoing capitalist exploitation by multinational capital of land and resources ripped off by colonialism, the creation of a landless class, and the destruction of rural communities without an economic base for survival.

The refusal to see the connection between unemployment and crime, disenfranchisement of communities and brooding hostility, creates its own paradoxes and contradictions before finally digging its own grave. It creates a growing dispossessed reserve army of labour with no respect for private property and law and order. The growing breakdown of community and family life as the economic gap widens must create more discontent and threats to social order that the state has to suppress.

The campaign in recent years to recruit more Maori police, particularly in rural areas, highlights the cosmetic attempt by the bourgeois state to gloss over past histories, to create ‘overseers’ in much the same way as union bureaucrats who act as intermediaries between workers and bosses to the detriment of workers. What has to be understood by workers is the true role of the police in capitalist society as functionaries that serve the interests of the state and of the capitalist class.

In the last analysis, whatever the peripheral factors that contributed to the shooting, Steven Wallace was a bright young Maori man who like so many others could not beat the odds and 'make it' in the bourgeois world. As he was dragged back by his past; by the legacy of landlessness, of debt, despair and anger and the destruction of his working class community by capital, he called out to the cop who shot him "you pushed me too far".

That his death should not be in vain, we have to ensure that all young working class men like Steven Wallace do not die unnecessarily by throwing themselves against the power of the state, but instead organise as oppressed workers into a collective force that will ultimately take power and bring about a society in which it is the needs of the people that at put at the fore and not the profits of the few.

From Class Struggle No 33, June-July 2000

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